F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
I read Babbitt after writing about Warren Harding for my presidents series, so after writing about Calvin Coolidge, I thought I'd take another look at what has been called the defining novel of the Jazz Age. I already owned a copy, which I'd picked up more or less on a whim — or, rather, I'd had Elizabeth pick up a copy for me in Canada, since I'd happened across a picture of a new cover that appealed to me a little more than the famous Cugat cover, but it turned out not to be available in the U.S. Only when I started in did I discover, to my horror, that there was a good reason for that: it wasn't just the outside that was different. Dialogue nested in single quotes! Nick Carraway referring to Gatsby as his "neighbour"! O travesty! Obviously I wasn't about to read an American novel with Britishized text, so I snapped up the ebook posthaste and read that instead.
Each time I've read Gatsby I've liked it more than the time before. In high school I got virtually nothing out of it: I followed the plot point about the car crash, but everything else just bounced right off me. I didn't grasp the themes, couldn't have told you what any of the characters were like, failed to pick up on a lot of the backstory (like how Gatsby got rich), didn't even get any of the jokes. And I don't recall us really talking about those things in class! We talked about the symbolism of the green light at the end of Daisy's dock, and of the giant eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, but we didn't really explore why the book was enjoyable. By the time I reread it in college, I was able to zero in on those sorts of things by myself, but it was still pretty much a mechanical exercise. It wasn't until I read it a third time, in grad school, that I actually liked it — that I actually had the capacity to process that, hey, wait, this narrator is a total smartass! This dialogue is full of amusing exchanges! And now, on my fourth time through, it seemed pretty obvious that this book was a masterpiece, fully deserving of its canonical status. Not only does Fitzgerald capture a specific yearning that I can relate to far more than I'd like to admit, but he does so in a story full of deft characterization, sprinkled with thoughtful observations, and with a laugh on almost every page. It got me wondering how I might teach it.
I've mused from time to time in these articles about the possibility of someday getting a job teaching U.S. history, but the fact remains that I have no formal credentials in that field; I also continue to have ties to Canada that give me a nonzero chance of moving there someday — I even read this book there! — and I gather that there is not a huge demand for U.S. history teachers in Canadian high schools. So when I'm reading a novel I do sometimes ponder how I might go about teaching it were I to become an English teacher, and this was certainly the case here, given The Great Gatsby's firm place in the high school curriculum. It's easy to see why it earned that place: not only is it great, but it's very short (doesn't even qualify for Nanowrimo, apparently!), and written in a style that still feels quite modern. I could imagine trying to highlight for my students the things I wish had been highlighted for me back in the day — to call on someone to read some of that deft characterization and tease out how a handful of sentences gives us a world of information about a person, or to call on someone to read some of that amusing dialogue and tease out why it's funny. (This last bit wouldn't be anything new — I spent a big chunk of the '00s tutoring kids who were getting SAT questions wrong because when they got to the reading comp passages they couldn't tell where the jokes were.) And yet, and yet… I have to wonder. Like I said, I can certainly relate to the notion of looking back on crucial moments of my youth that didn't go as well as they could have, and wishing more than anything that I could recreate them and get them right this time, and in some cases even trying to do so and discovering that, no, that actually doesn't work. But when I first read The Great Gatsby, those moments hadn't happened yet! How do you take a book featuring multiple passages about the implications of turning thirty and meaningfully discuss it with a roomful of people half that age?
The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Francis Ford Coppola, and Jack Clayton, 1974
As noted, I reread The Great Gatsby with a particular interest in anything it might have to say about the politics of the 1920s. There's certainly no mistaking that it is set in the '20s; not only are a lot of the plot points tied to the book's historical moment — organized crime profiting from Prohibition, WWI putting a generation of young men in uniform — but more than that, it captured the roar of the '20s to such an extent that it has become the window through which a lot of people are introduced to the decade. Gatsby's wild parties reflect the self-indulgence that marked the "return to normalcy" from the years of wartime sacrifice, though with many guests, what we see is less celebration than the sort of dissolution into which more than a few people retreated after the horrors of the trenches demonstrated that the world they knew had torn itself apart. But for others, the end of the old world meant the beginning of an exciting new one, where anything might be possible. Cars! Telephones! Women wearing short hair, smoking cigarettes, playing sports! And yet, as much as Gatsby is of the '20s, it's not about the '20s the way that Babbitt is. Sinclair Lewis's novel was about Harding voters and the society that created them, and is now of interest chiefly to U.S. history buffs. Fitzgerald's is about a human yearning that isn't tied to one particular era, and is consequently much more timeless. For all the '20s trappings, it's easy to forget them for long stretches.
But film is a visual medium, and it's hard to forget that the Coppola/Clayton Gatsby movie takes place in the '20s when we constantly have '20s clothing and '20s technology right before our eyes (albeit on '70s film stock, which is equally distinctive in its own right). Turning the verbal descriptions of Gatsby's parties and Nick Carraway's New York into an audiovisual experience is the movie's main achievement; it certainly isn't the narrative, which misses the spirit of the novel by a mile. The book is full of banter — for long stretches, it's basically a really good sitcom — yet the filmmakers seem blissfully unaware of this fact. Nick in particular is portrayed as an aw-shucks goober who seems like he'd look up "sarcasm" in the dictionary and come away scratching his head. In place of the novel's sharp wit, we get ponderous melodrama:
At least that clip is free of the grandmotherly bleat Mia Farrow saddles her Daisy with. Kind of undercuts the whole fairy princess aspect of the character. And yet ultimately this is the better of the two Gatsby movies I watched.
The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Craig Pearce, and Baz Luhrmann, 2013
The 1974 Gatsby movie's concluding voiceover is taken from the novel — specifically, from the third-to-last paragraph. It leaves out what Roger Ebert, exasperated by the omission, called "the most famous last sentence of any novel of the century", and the penultimate paragraph as well. Nor does it include all of the paragraph it does make use of. Here's what it leaves in (in black) and leaves out (in blue):
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
There's a lot of material in Fitzgerald's novel about America as a land, and as a republic, and as a collection of distinct regions with very different cultures, which is downplayed in the '74 movie. I suppose it is not too surprising that this material is also left out of the 2013 movie, given that it was made by a bunch of Australians. But the later movie also ditches the '74 movie's fidelity to the 1920s, featuring a rap-heavy soundtrack and splashy CGI that looks so fake that I assume it must have been deliberate. I'm guessing that the filmmakers thought that their penchant for excess — they tried a similar "grab a classic and crank it up to 11, dude" stunt with Romeo + Juliet twenty years ago — was a good match for Gatsby's excess. If so, it was a miscalculation, because Gatsby's excess is not reflected in the book to which he lends his name. Take the bit in which Gatsby engineers a reunion with Daisy at Nick's cottage, gets it into his head that she might like some flowers, and has dozens upon dozens of bouquets sent over, to the point that soon there's almost no room left in the house for people. In a movie this makes for a fun sight gag, but the novel features this moment as well, because even though the comedy of it is less effective on the page, there's a point to it aside from the laugh: just as Gatsby's first version of his life story ("collecting jewels, chiefly rubies" and "trying to forget something very sad that had happened to me long ago") is a ten-year-old boy's idea of an impressive autobiography, the stunt with the flowers is a ten-year-old boy's idea of how to impress a girl. And the 2013 Gatsby adaptation is a ten-year-old boy's idea of how to make a kewl movie. Many reviewers have pointed out the irony of this — that Gatsby's compulsion to overdo everything is meant to be pathetic, and that Luhrmann is therefore unwittingly mocking himself — and on this read, even before watching the movies, I was struck by how averse Fitzgerald is to excess, and how much of the humor in his book comes from puncturing it. For instance, take the passage that David Lynch ganked for this commercial:
If you don't want to watch the commercial, here's the text — and again, black means the text is used, and blue means it is elided:
His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.
Though Lynch gives no hint of this, this passage is indirect speech: Gatsby is telling Nick about his original courtship of Daisy, in much the same style that he describes his fictitious life as "a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe" — in phrases that "were worn so threadbare" that Nick can barely "restrain [his] incredulous laughter". And in this case as well, as Gatsby talks of stellar tuning forks and blossoming flowers, Nick groans to himself about the "appalling sentimentality" of it all. The same is true of a lot of the novel's big touchstones! How many students over the years have had to listen to an earnest English teacher explain how the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg represent God's judgment, have had to read aloud in class George Wilson's speech about how "God sees everything", without the teacher taking into account that George Wilson is portrayed as the stupidest character in the book, and without anyone being asked to read the punchline: "That's an advertisement"? And yes, I suppose there's a case to be made that Fitzgerald is trying to hedge his bets a bit here, offering up the symbolism and purple prose to be taken seriously by those who go in for that sort of thing, while making a joke out of it for the cynical wiseacres like Nick and me. But I do think that these adaptations suggest that a lot of people out there are missing one of the key elements that makes The Great Gatsby a masterpiece: that it's a bleak tragedy in the big picture, but a sly comedy from moment to moment. Just like life.